We’re all capable of learning, unlearning and relearning. We’re all capable of adapting to changes. We’re all capable of evolving and improving, just as we’re capable of acting stubbornly and simply refusing to do things differently. As people who are – supposedly – rational, we should be able to reason, assess, and make the necessary decisions to keep moving forward. Some of us do, others simply don’t seem to be getting anywhere. Where does differentiation lie? What happens that makes us so equal and yet, so different in so many different levels. Most importantly, are we in charge of anything? Can we, as teachers, really make the difference?
When I think about some of the differences that are visible among students who attend the same school, who sit through the same classes and who listen to the same lectures, I wonder why is it that each one of them is able to grasp more or less than others. As a disclaimer note, I need to reinforce, especially for those who are new to this blog, that I don’t believe in the one size fits all model of education, and that, yes, each and every one of us learns differently. We all have our pace and a teacher’s style might cater more to student A than to student B. However, is this all there is to it?
I feel we’ve been looking at the space of the school as the only place where such differentiation is made. What if most of what defines how we think and our capability of learning, relearning and unlearning were looked into from a more holistic perspective indeed? At the risk of sounding trite, how often do we look at the learner from a holistic perspective when we, ahem, say this is what we have to do as educators? The point is, if intelligence is diverse, are we ever going to be able, as teachers to ensure that learners will be equipped with the tools they are likely to need to thrive?
What if we looked at learning beyond cognitive abilities? This is, actually, what we’ve been hearing more and more of these days. Yet, we end up seeing parents and teachers shoving their kids into courses at an ever younger age. “We want to make sure they have the best chances to succeed when they grow up,” says a worried parent. The teacher replies, “The younger, the better! It’s never to soon to learn,” and, boom… here we go into the same old trap again.
We don’t learn from school exclusively, and this should have already become crystal clear with the revolution that technology is likely to bring about in learning. We learn best from one another. We learn when we’re challenged and when we are stimulate to think differently, to find viewpoints to support our opinions. This will rarely come from a group of people who have grown up exposed to the same old ideas. If we confine a group of people into one single space, with access to the same sources of information, these people are likely to end up having a lot more things in common in their way of looking at the world than we may think.
What is it, then, that makes each one of the learners in our classrooms unique? Should we be looking inwards for the answer and racking our brains for different ways to teach them, or should we come to terms with the fact that, in the long run, its not only cognitive skills and abilities that will be responsible for a person’s so-called intelligence. I’m not referring here to people who are book smart in opposition to those who are street wise. I’m also trying to look at intelligence from a more diverse perspective. And also at our ability to be creative and to come up with creative solutions for problems.
What we need is to help the brain create and strengthen connections, and these connections are to be formed in different parts of the brain. This happens when we learn how to walk and we need to make sure the right message is sent to the right limb at the right time. When we challenge ourselves to learn how to play a musical instrument that might require a very complicated twist of the hand, or when we simply want to dazzle our friends by climbing a tall tree. These connections are created when we bond with other people and suddenly find ourselves lost amidst an intricate coterie where we all think alike, and then we’re suddenly cast into an environment where we’ve got to learn how to hear different opinions.
Connections, connections, connections… if we understand little about the importance of neural connections, how can we ever expect to understand reasons for two people who have been raised in the very same educational setting end up being so different. No, it’s obviously not only a matter of stimulus and response, but it’s also not only some work of mysterious forces, or our genes alone. We have to believe that we’re all capable of learning, relearning and unlearning if we believe that teachers do make a difference. How far does the extension of our powers to change it all go, that’s the point we should bear in mind.
A child ends up spending a lot more time with friends as they grow old, and not surprisingly, they end up liking the same kind of music, enjoying doing the same things whenever they have free time, and, yes, thinking very much alike. We enjoy this kind of self-assurance as human beings, and we do tend to seek those who think alike. It is reassuring. We end up looking a lot more for validation than for real answers. It’s easier to be in our comfort zone than leaving it.
But then again, what if we accept that we seek the company of like-minded people, and that people who read the same books and do the same things end up thinking alike? What is it that makes each one of us stand out? What makes us stand out in the crowd, what makes us unique, can only partially be found within the realms of the classroom. This is why our role os to make ourselves less and less needed as teachers. But that would probably require a whole lot of learning, unlearning and relearning from… teachers. Perhaps a price lot higher than most of those who end up in the trade are willing to pay. Teachers will always make the difference, but the way to make the difference is not by assuming we ought to do it all and that we are solely responsible for our students’ success or failure. Things should be clearer now than they’ve ever been to past generations… either that, or we’re just inebriated by all that’s been made available to us at this day and time, and in the end it will all be the same.
How do you make a difference? Most importantly, how do you make room for others to make a difference?
If you haven’t been involved in #ELTChat discussions on twitter for the past couple of years, you should know you’ve missed the chance to connect with fantastic like-minded educators who pursue PD and always strive to do best for their students. #ELTChat is a discussion held every Wednesday on Twitter, and even though I wasn’t able to participate in the last discussions, we could always refer to the website that had been created as a repository for the discussions. This was only possible due to the hard work of all those who are involved in getting things up and running. If anyone here has been involved in any kind of endeavour, be it online or offline, you’ll know how hard it is when things seem to fall apart – but they only seem. As someone who has benefitted a lot from #ELTChat, and someone who appreciates the work that’s been put up by the team of moderators in ELTChat, I’ve decided to share what Marisa Constantinides has written on her blog here. This is not meant as a manifesto, but I believe those who keep looking for opportunities to keep growing professionally should know where they’ll be able to find the new website for #ELTChat, and a couple of words by the moderators on the reasons for the change. I’m posting the post in its entirety, as it’s been written on the original blog post, without adding nor deleting any word from it. Without further ado, here goes the repost from Marisa’s blog:
Blog post August 10, 2012
Like many great ideas, it didn’t hit just one person but several.
The website to keep up the communication of its members, a base and repository of our ideas was one of the first things we all thought of creating – the wiki came later.
Andy Chaplin was keen to join the moderation team and help with podcasts and technical stuff; he was quick to buy eltchat.com and announced the good news to us after the fact.
A few months later, right after TESOL France 2011, he suddenly disappeared – some say for reasons of health.
We never found out for sure.
We never received a single word of response to our emails.
eltchat.com was and still is registered in his name.
And yesterday we lost it
On August 8 the domain expired and we have no way of taking over unless it goes up for sale again; it was very sad that Andy Chaplin did not find it appropriate to renew.
The news is really upsetting.
The work we have put in on this website cannot be told in a few simple words – but it has been a labour of love and we have got so much out of it that we have never regretted one single moment
We are pretty upset at the behaviour of this individual – disappointment is one big understatement.
But we trust that our community of #ELTchatters, our PLN for short, will again gather round the new domain which we have purchased – eltchat.org
It will take us a few days to put the website back on its feet
And all will be as it was before – all the posts in place all your thoughts and comments, all the polls and great summaries which got us on the shortlist of the ELTon Awards nominations
We will be back with a vengeance
We are not just a website – we did not get on the ELTon awards shortlist as just another website!!!
We are a great community of teachers and we have a Plan B!
See you all in September!!!
Marisa Constantinides – Shaun Wilden
P.S. We would greatly appreciate it if any of you belonging to this great community of teachers, teacher educators, bloggers, #ELTchat followers, reposted this on your blog
If you decide to do this, please add your name to the post under ours.
Hello everyone! I know I’ve been quiet on the blog for a couple of months now, I do have some (good) reasons for that. First and foremost, this blogger got married in June, which meant a lot of hard work with planning everything, and a bit of partying afterwards. I’ve also attended and participated in the 13th National Braz-TESOL convention in Rio de Janeiro. I was really honoured for having been invited to be the MC for the convention (and I hope those who attended it thought it was a decent job), and I also presented a Pecha Kucha in the very first PK night in the history of Braz-TESOL. Most importantly, it was a great pleasure to have the chance to attend the convention with other staff members. One of these has actually written a guest post and has kindly accepted to be published here. Without further ado, here comes the first text of this new semester in Doing Some Thinking, a guest post written by teacher Luiz Eduardo, or, simply put, Teacher Dudu. I hope you enjoy what’s to come!
The teacher must have a heart
After attending a week of professional development, such as the 13th BRAZ-TESOL National Convention, teachers normally go back to their schools full of new ideas. They heard Christine Coombe talking about the 10 characteristic of a highly effective teacher; Kathi Bailey speaking about the bridges to link what students can say to what they want to say; Ben Goldstein and the metaphors in English; Jim Scrivener developing the interaction between teaching and learning; David Nunan mentioning the proto-language and real language; Luke Meddings giving ideas to teach unplugged; Herbert Puchta showing thoughtful aspects about Neurolinguistics; Nicky Hocky and the digital literacies; Jeremy Harmer elucidating the myth of multi-tasking; and Lindsay Clandfield talking about critical thinking, among other speakers. And I’m not even mentioning what teachers have certainly learned from all the workshops and talks they have attended in addition to the plenary sessions.
Although they have probably enjoyed learning and remembering so many things, they now have a big problem in their minds, which is how to apply all those things in their classroom. Is everything suitable to their reality? Should they try to do everything they have heard from these highly-respected professionals in ELT? But… how???????
This is exactly my point in this reflection. Though teachers should always try to keep up to date, they are the ones who know their students, classroom, school, city and country. They are the ones who must feel when to use certain activity. They should know how adapt activities to different contexts. They have to make students embrace the activities and the ideas they’ve been presented with. They are in charge of the responsibility to teach their students. Finally, they are the ones who have to cope with such diverse teaching situations.
Thousands of activities without feeling aren’t worth it, just as feeling without any activity is equally worthless.
It’s possible to say that the teacher should have this balance: to keep up to date, but always remembering that they need a reality filter. As Christine Coombe ranked ’the calling to the profession’ as the number one characteristic of a good teacher, I think I can say that the teacher’s heart is this reality filter I’m talking about.
I fortunately work in a school which encourages teachers to try new ideas, and to be always pursuing self and professional development. I am, most definitely, looking forward to putting to use the new ideas I had during this fantastic brainstorming week.
I am a teacher at Atlantic Idiomas in Brasília, Brazil. I was born and I’ve grown up here in Brasília, the city which has the most beautiful sky in the world. I have a BA degree and teacher’s course in History from Brasilia’s Federal University (UnB). I am finishing my undergraduation Language course, majoring in English, this year; also at Brasilia’s Federal University (UnB). I’ve been teaching English since 2004 and I really love what I do. From now on, I want to participate more actively in the online teaching world.
UPDATE: Below my post, you can read Vinícius Nobre’s letter (he’s the president of Braz-TESOL) and, now, the reply that Open English has written. We did it!
I must say I’m not particularly offended when I’m called a NNEST (Non-Native English Speaking Teacher). Perhaps I’m just being naïve, but I don’t believe there’s harm in the terminology when it’s used by someone just to make things clear. It’s just as if you say I’m tall, or blond, or even white. It’s not that I don’t acknowledge we have to pay attention to the rules of political correctness and avoid misinterpretation as much as we can, but I just choose to believe that people, when they do that, they’re not simply trying to offend me. The same is true for the NNEST thing. I was born in Brazil and I’ve never studied nor lived abroad, and the English I know is the English I learnt in Brazil. Therefore, if you call me a NNEST, I simply understand that you are stating a fact.
However, it’s also very easy to notice when someone is being rude, offensive, or just tongue-in-cheek. For instance, if you’re among friends and one of them just happens to say something that could be interpreted as rude by others who haven’t got a clue of how well you know one another, you don’t take it that seriously. You’re probably well aware of the fact that this friend of yours is just pulling your leg, yanking your chain, or making fun of you. You know this is not exactly what he feels or thinks. I remember when I was 12 or 13 and played basketball. If I remember correctly, that was the very first time I heard someone complaining about the kind of language I used with a very good friend of mine. You see, we were very good friends, and there was absolutely no harm meant, but as this friend was black, I used to call him according to his skin colour. I can honestly relate to that and assure there was no cruelty or racism of any kind involved, just as I’m sure he didn’t mean any when he called me “German” or “Whitey” or “Honky”. I’m now aware of the fact that these are offensive words, but I have never felt offended when these words were used by my friends.
Just the same, it’s also very easy to notice people are being rude or judging you as inferior – and they can use exactly the same words. You see, it’s not only a matter of being politically correct, it’s a matter of how you say what you’re saying. The body language, the context, and all that goes with verbal communication are the things that make the difference between a simple joke among friends and offensive and unacceptable language. The reason why I’m writing this is not because we should be teaching this to our students, or teaching them which words in English are not supposed to be said, which are the politically correct ones and which should never be uttered. What’s caused me to write this post was the complete and absolute lack of common sense of people who happened to have put together a TV advert of an online language school that, as far as I know, is quite new in Brazil. The school is OpenEnglish.com, and the advert (I’ll translate it to my fellow NESTs below) is this:
This is what the advert says (my comments are in brackets).
“These two want to speak English. One of them goes to a traditional school, the other one studies at OpenEnglish. One of them studies with the same textbook his mother studied with (as if textbooks hadn’t changed at all), the other one studies online with multimedia lessons (one size fits all, anyone?). One has classes with Joana (a Brazilian name for the teacher who keeps dancing and making a fool of herself dancing to herself singing “the book is on the table”), the other one has classes with Jenny. “How about you? What is your choice?” (Jenny’s sentence in Portuguese).”
On one of the other ads, they’ve even added that Joana, the Brazilian teacher, had learnt English in Buenos Aires… well, I’m so sorry, but this is the kind of NNEST that IS, indeed, derogatory. This is why there’s a cause running on Facebook through the causes site, which you can find by clicking here. You see, there are a whole bunch of things that could be said to highlight the benefits of studying online – I’d be OK with that. However, I can’t possibly stand someone going as far as taking advantage of the little knowledge of people when it comes to learning a foreign language and their desire to learn it fast (because everything has to be done fast these days) to sell a product. In addition to this, Brazil is currently on a campaign to teach their population English no matter what on account of the world cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016. How many people will be lured by an advert that is on national TV and waste their time and money on something that is unlikely to work?
As I said in the beginning, I’m a NNEST and that’s it. I don’t have to be proud or feel inferior because of that. The most important letter in the abbreviation is the last one – T. I’m a teacher first and foremost, and as such I’m constantly looking for ways to better teach my students. It honestly doesn’t matter where you’re from. If you also find the campaign offensive, I kindly ask you to join the cause. If you think this is not important, that’s also OK. If you think I’m wrong, just leave your comment and we can definitely talk about it.
UPDATES: Isabela Villas Boas has also written a fantastic piece on the add, expanding on what I have written here: Click here to read her post.
Vinícius Nobre is the current president of Braz-TESOL, and this is what he wrote on the matter:
“As the president of the largest association of English teachers in Brazil, I feel I have to take a stand and express my outrage and disappointment with regards to the TV commercial that has been broadcast on national television promoting an online English course.
I am NOT a native speaker of the English language, I do not have long blonde hair, I do not live in California and I do not wear a tight T-shirt to teach my students. In fact, I NEVER had a native speaker of English as a teacher. I never even lived in a foreign country. I simply studied the English language in my own developing country, and then four years of linguistics, literature, second language acquisition, morphology, pronunciation, syntax, education, pedagogy, methods and approaches. I have only dedicated 16 years of my life to the personal and professional growth of thousands of students. I have not bragged about my passport or my birthplace because I was too busy trying to understand my students’ linguistic and affective needs. I am NOT a native speaker of the language; hence – according to this TV commercial – I do not qualify to teach. I probably qualify as an irresponsible and grotesque mockery of a teacher.
Like me, thousands of hard-working, gifted, committed, passionate and under-valued educators (from Brazil or ANY other non-English speaking country) are depicted in 30 seconds of a despicable and desperate attempt to seduce students. I have met outstanding teachers regardless of their nationality and many of which who were native English speakers. The best English speaking educators I have met, however, were always dignified enough to acknowledge the qualities of a non-native speaker colleague.
Foreign language education has developed tremendously so as to guarantee the fairness and respect that all serious language professionals deserve (native speakers or not). At least among ourselves. If students still insist that a native speaker is better, we should at least rest assured that in our own profession we can find the respect and the recognition that a committed and qualified professional needs to have. It is sad, however, to be ridiculed by another (so-called) educational centre.
As the president of BRAZ-TESOL, as a non-native speaker of the English language, as an admirer of teachers regardless of their nationality, I resent such an irresponsible joke. But then again, who am I to even think about saying anything about the learning and the teaching of English? I am not Jenny from California – the utmost example of a foreign language educator.”
Open English’s CEO reply to the letter above – in English and in Portuguese:
My name is Andres Moreno and I’m the founder and CEO of Open English.
A recent advertisement we’ve been running on TV has upset some groups of people, including an important Brazilian teacher’s association, for what they perceive to be an offensive portrayal. Let me start by saying that anyone whose mission in life is teaching English has earned our admiration and respect. If we have offended this group, or any other, we sincerely apologize. As a company Founded by a Latin American entrepreneur and currently employing people from multiple countries across the region (including Brazil), we value diversity of opinions and welcome feedback as part of our desire to connect with students and advertise responsibly.
We happen to believe that online teaching from native English speakers is the right model for certain lifestyles, so it’s the one we’ve chosen for OUR business. However, this in no way diminishes the efforts and achievements of other teaching professionals.
Again, our intent was never to offend. Due to the feedback we have received and because of our great respect for our colleagues in the English teaching community, we are immediately pulling the ad from our website, social media platforms and television airwaves as soon as possible.
Meu nome é Andres Moreno, fundador e CEO da Open English.
Uma campanha publicitária veiculada por nós na TV foi considerada ofensiva por algumas pessoas, incluindo uma importante associação brasileira de professores. Quero começar dizendo que qualquer pessoa que tenha como missão na vida o ensino do inglês merece nossa admiração e nosso respeito. Se nós, involuntariamente, ofendemos essas pessoas, ou quaisquer outras, sinceramente pedimos desculpas. Como uma empresa fundada por um empreendedor latino-americano que emprega profissionais de diversos países (incluindo o Brasil), valorizamos a diversidade de opiniões e recebemos eventuais críticas como uma forma de nos ajudar a aprimorar nossa conexão com os estudantes e a anunciar de forma responsável.
Acreditamos que o ensino online com professores nativos de inglês é o melhor modelo para determinadas pessoas com determinados estilos de vida e é esse o modelo que escolhemos para o nosso negócio. Isso, de forma nenhuma, desvaloriza os esforços ou diminui a importância de outros profissionais de ensino.
Nossa intenção nunca foi ofender ninguém. Em razão das críticas que recebemos e do profundo respeito que temos por nossos colegas da comunidade de ensino do inglês, determinamos a interrupção imediata da exibição dos filmes publicitários da campanha em nosso website, em nossos canais nas mídias sociais e na televisão.
Fundador e CEO da Open English
I’ve already written about the use of L1 in the language classroom before here and here. I do believe that L1, if used properly in the classroom, might actually help learners. The problem, then, lies in knowing when to use L1 in a class and, most importantly, how to use it to promote learning instead of using it to promote laziness.
I think that it’s a lot easier to use L1 in an ELF setting. The fact that learners usually share the same L1, and many times the teacher is a NNEST who also shares the same L1 with learners, makes it much simpler than using a learners L1 in an ESL environment with students from many different nationalities and languages. To each his own, right? If ESL learners have the benefit of speaking L2 much more frequently and having many more meaningful encounters with the target language outside the classroom than EFL students, the latter may at least have the advantage that it’s easier for them to use their L1 to better (and more confidently) understand abstract concepts.
Yet, knowing exactly how to use L1 in the classroom is not an easy task mainly because most teachers who abide by CLT have been taught that speaking L1 in the classroom is a cardinal sin. However, if you are able to make it meaningful and useful to your students, how could this be doing more harm than good? Anyway, this is an example of an activity in which I used L1 in the classroom and, having had a couple of classes since then, I could tell it’s been extremely successful. Not only that, but apparently learners could clearly see the purpose of speaking L1 in the classroom at that moment, so no one whined about having to switch back to L2, or using L2 for everything else other than the activity itself.
Instead of telling students that we would be working on reported speech and falling in the trap of teaching some grammar McNuggets, we simply had a class in which they would end up producing the language I was hoping to help them with without having to explicitly tell them so. I started by telling them they would now have the chance to ask me any question they could possibly want. I handed out a couple of slips of paper and students could ask for more if they wanted to ask further questions. I let them choose their coloured pens and write questions that came to their mind. Once the questions had been written, the slips of paper were handed in.
I sat in the middle of the class and showed them the questions. They then had to guess who had written the question and ask me the question. Fortunately, they were trying to use reported questions at that stage, so I could collect lots of samples of language to work on. We actually dealt with emergent language as it appeared, and pretty soon they started correcting themselves. There were about 20 questions of all kinds – wh- questions, yes/no questions, questions in the present, in the past, in the future, and even the ubiquitous “to be or not to be?”.
After that stage, I thought it would be nice if there was something slightly more practical and meaningful to them. I remember that there are many activities for learners to practice reported speech, such as pretending they have been the witness of murder and then they have to report what they’ve seen and heard at the scene, or working with comic strips by removing the speech bubble for student A and having student B reporting what they have in their comic strip, and chinese whispers. These are all nice activities that are likely to require the use of reported speech. However, what we did was playing the interpreter.
I started by asking for two volunteers. One of them was going to be interviewed by the rest of the class, and the other one was going to be the interpreter. This means the interviewed only spoke English, the interpreter spoke English and Portuguese, and the rest of the class spoke only Portuguese. The interpreters were naturally using the proper structure for “he asked you how…” and so on. At times I just had to say “try again” and off they went.
At the end of the class, students said they had a lot of fun playing the interpreters, and that they actually saw this as something they would possibly need to do in their lives. Perhaps this was the reason that they could remember it so well in the following classes and had no trouble at all coming up with the correct structure for reporting what they’ve heard or read. Isn’t this one of our main purposes? Shouldn’t we strive to make learning effective? If that’s the case, L1 should always be yet another tool you have available. It shouldn’t be used to make your job easier, and it shouldn’t be your only tool. We could have played the “game” in English as well, but that’s the point. When explaining a word, we can choose between paraphrasing, showing a picture, miming, drawing on the board, contextualising, providing synonyms and what have you. You have to choose one, though. This is how I feel that L1 can be used to help learning. This was definitely not the only activity we had in class nor was it the only thing I could think of. However, among all the activities I could have chosen from, I chose the one involving L1. This time, with this group, it was a fortunate choice. Oh, and no grammar rule had to be presented…
If there’s one thing that has changed in education with the advent of new technologies and, chiefly, the web 2.0, this has got to be how easy it is now for us to shift from consumers of information to producers of data. There’s absolutely nothing new in this statement, and any report or information sheet from the early days of the web 2.0 will tell you this. One of the main benefits of the web 2.0 was the fact that it made it easier for people to actually produce content rather than simply receiving it. Simply put, it’s only logical to assume that schools and teachers everywhere would quickly leap at the opportunity for their learners to stop being so passive in their learning roles. Right?!
Unfortunately, I don’t think the answer to this question is affirmative. As a matter of fact, if there’s one thing that has been going on is that the easy access to information has only allowed for teachers themselves to embrace a kind of teaching that prevents them from, well, teaching. I don’t mean to say that all teachers have been doing that – a quick look at the blogosphere will certainly give you an idea of the numerous movers and shakers who are trying hard to change the rules of the game. I just wonder if this will be enough. Why?
Well, it seems to me that whenever people who are online share the benefits for being online and sharing with their PLN, they tend to say that this was way out from the kind of sluggish attitude towards change that they see in their co-workers. I’ve constantly wondered what it’d be like to have all like-minded educators who actively share and disseminate knowledge online working together in the same school. Would it work? I honestly believe such a school would either be a fantastic place for learning to take place, or it’d be absolutely chaotic. However, there would certainly be enough of the mere reproducing of data we demand of most learners everywhere.
We may call it learner-centered, or learning-centered education, but simply saying that learners are free to choose what and how to learn doesn’t make you an educator. More often than not we are at a loss for what exactly it is that we’d like to do, and we only find out what we’re truly passionate about after having had the chance to experiment with different things – this means, in my opinion, that even living vicariously counts. The point is understanding that a learner-centered approach doesn’t mean total and complete freedom, at least not until a certain point when we’ve already learned how to learn, unlearn, and critically think about our beliefs and ideas.
Despite the large number of schools and teachers doing an amazing job, and the fact that those who do it do it so passionately that they simply couldn’t care less about what others think, there’s strength in numbers. If one teacher alone is trying to make a change, there’s something in our own nature that will prevent students from giving it a go. They usually change their mind once they’ve been able to start it, but getting there may be the problem. Living in a test-centric educational world, learners have absorbed the concept that what matters is how much information you can amass in your brain for that upcoming physics test. It is also deeply ingrained in them the idea that certain subjects count more than others. And this is widespread even by teachers, when they say that students shouldn’t worry so much about studying English, and that mathematics is far more important than biology, for instance. This is a lesson our students quickly learn, and they learn it from the ones they’ve also learned not to question.
We do have a chance to change the game by giving them more responsibility when it comes to their learning, but this implies that we ourselves, teachers, ought to come to terms with our new role. We should do this at the risk of jeopardising yet another generation of learners. In order to do this, we ourselves need to become producers of data instead of reproducers, and we should encourage our learners to become producers themselves instead of mere consumers of whatever is thrown at them. Most importantly, we should be teaching them to be critical of anything they hear, even if that is told by, well, their teachers. We’re all fallible, and this is the very first lesson that we should learn in order to pass it on to our learners.
How about teaching learners how to assess the validity and reliability of a source before regurgitating what this single source has made public? How about asking them to go being memorising, and starting that by teaching them how to summarise information found by three different sources, and then commenting and reflecting on each other’s work? Ah, but nothing of this is news to anyone who’s been concerned about change and who may actually be reading this post. We, and I dare include myself in this crowd, are not the ones who are doing wrong. The problem is how do we get to the ones who simply refuse to recycle their knowledge of and about teaching? What can we do to instill this need of change in those who work with us, who are right next doors teaching the same kids we’re teaching?
I say that after I had the chance to talk to a group of students who are between 12 and 14 years old. When I asked them whether they feel that they learn more by doing rather than listening, their answer was an obvious yes. However, what surprised me was that when they were offered the chance to actually do something different in class, when they were told they would have to work harder to learn, their quickly said they felt it’d be too much work. After a very quick chat it easy to spot something that has been discussed for a while, but very little is actually done to prevent it from happening – we were the ones who educated them out of their creative selves. Having grown up in a school system where the sage is always on the stage, and where the teacher is always right, they’ve simply been playing by the rules for as long as they can remember. They got used to being spoon-fed, and it certainly is a lot easier to simply sit still and wait for someone to tell you everything you will need to learn. At this age, it is hard for learners to realise that it is exactly because they’ve only been through lectures in their whole school life that many of them can’t succeed. It’ll take them a while to understand that things would have been much easier for them if their teachers had made them actively take learning to their hands. It’d be a lot easier if teachers actually taught.
But here’s the catch: if we try to change, we’re opening ourselves to questions, and we haven’t been trained for that. We were educated as reproducers ourselves, and this has somehow always made sense in the eyes of the vast majority. We’ve learned that we aren’t capable of producing high-quality material and being subjected to criticism on what we’re saying or on what we think. We fail to see growth in differences and this is simply reproduced in our classes. Thus, the cycle continues and we’re raising yet another generation of consumers and reproducers, and these will be constantly wondering why it is that there are a couple of few who actually become very successful by producing what they could have produced. By and large, we’re not raising people who are comfortable with exposing their ideas, these people are raising themselves in spite of what we’ve been doing to them.
Question: how do we change this? How do we stop preaching to the choir and start getting those who are unwilling to change to actually do something that will matter?
Autonomy has become a trending topic in the world of education. To be honest, the way I hear some people talking about it makes me wonder whether this hasn’t always been the case, really. “Oh, I know it! How about trying to make ourselves, teachers, less needed as students progress in their education?” I mean, seriously? Hasn’t this been the objective of the game from the very beginning? Why do many still look at this as if it were the next big thing in education when it has actually never ceased to be the big thing about it. It’s just like teaching learners how to learn instead of teaching them what we feel they should learn. Yet, one thing that I’ve been thinking about lately is exactly what the role of the teacher is – and how we should play it – in this game of autonomy so we can do more good than harm. If you bear with me for a moment, I’d like to share a couple of things that are still percolating.
If we could think of what we’ve been learning as building blocks, and that as we amass information we add one block on top of another, we could have many different layers of information that need to be retrieved and available for use. As teachers, we have two different choices (OK, we have many choices, but I’ll narrow it down to two for practicality issues): we can put the blocks ourselves where we see fit, or we can help learners find out where to better position their blocks on top of previous knowledge. This is where we start facing the very first problem in the differences between teaching by lecturing and learning. Some may believe that information goes beautifully on top of previously stored information. This represents the linearity view of teaching.
Instead, we could look at the learning structure as dependent on each one of the blocks, which have to be placed by the individual when he or she is able to spot the right place for it. However, teachers may and should help. The very first thing that we should bear in mind is that teachers do make the difference, but only as long as they are aware of what they are doing. Let’s imagine teachers understand that one block goes on top of the other, but not in a linear way. What may the problem with this view be? Well, if the teacher believes he or she can simply show his learners what the steps are, he’ll end up with a flight of stairs, but with no kind of of support under it. This could be represented as the picture below:
This is usually what happens when teachers simply demonstrate how to do something by showing rather than guiding. By doing things yourself you’ll eventually take your students all the way up to the 4th stage, but, as they haven’t learned how to do it themselves, they’re likely to end up going back to square one. This time, however, with all sorts of debris on the floor to make putting the blocks back together a more daunting and confusing task.
Equally as harmful is not being patient enough and not being able to allow for learning to sink in and lay the foundations properly for the following step. If we don’t understand that people learn at different paces, we might end up giving up on waiting for them to ‘get it’ and move on too soon. This may also be the case of teachers who fail to carefully listen to their learners and understand what they have already grasped. These teachers end up with learners whose blocks are built somewhat like this:
Here, it is clear that the teacher has showed some concern in helping the learner with the basics before moving on to more complex issues. What this extremely simple picture fails to represent is the fact that all blocks are interconnected, and it’s not only a matter of having learnt 1, and then 2, and only then 3. In order to get to 3, we need to make sure that all connections made between 1 and 3 are solid, and that the third row depends as much on the first one as it depends on the second. One thing is still apparent in the picture above, though – learning is taking place from outside to inside. It’s not up to the learner to progress from one point to another, but it’s up to what is imposed onto him by what is dictated by external forces.
Instead, we should try and look at it from a perspective in which the learner is capable of being aware of what his or her next step forward should be. The problem is that we cannot see what someone else is capable of accomplishing. We can’t assess competence; we can only assess performance. And this is the part that’s got me thinking. If we can only see performance, how about focussing on helping learners work on the width of their pyramid of learning so they know when and where to place the other blocks? If we work on constantly recycling, and if we truly try to scaffold learning, we’re likely to work on features we can observe, not on features we would like to observe. By having a wider base at the bottom, it’s easier to add blocks at the top.
How do we get there?
If you ask me, one of the central tenets of teaching and learning is that one doesn’t take place without the other. Yes, we should focus on learning, and all teaching should only be measured by how much learning it entails. But the key is finding out how to get there. Again, if all we can see is performance, what better way to help learners progress than by focussing on language they produce in order to help them improve what they already know? This is what we are doing when we carefully and actively listen to our learners and make sure we are having a class instead of just a conversation. This is what we do by focussing on emergent language – we make our students aware of what they’re saying and work on meaningful and personal samples of language.
If we are constantly recycling and expanding on previous knowledge, we’re likely to help learners build upon their own knowledge independently. How do we become good at something? How do we develop a skill? Only rarely will you see someone being able to excel at something they’ve never practiced and rehearsed before. Before you can run, you have to learn how to walk. Before you can play a Bach’s piece, you need to learn the musical scale and know how to play each one of the notes. Before you learn complex issues, you need to learn – and practice – the basics. If you practise and recycle enough, you’re likely to progress much faster as having the knowledge of the most basic things will help you understand how to get to the complex parts.
Perhaps we’d be doing more by focussing more on the individual and the process than focussing on the product. I’m sure most teachers are aware of that. Unfortunately, I myself know many who can only talk the talk, but not walk the walk. How about you?